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2007 North Sea Jazz Cruise Days 9-12: Land-ho! Causing Waves At The Festival

Mark Sabbatini By

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Day 1 | Day 2-3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7 | Day 8 | Day 9-12



(Author's note: While the "gee-whiz" factor ought to be diminishing after a decade of dealing with digital music, I'm in absolute raptures discovering a large number of concerts from the 2007 North Sea Jazz Festival available as free streaming audio from their website. Anyone smart enough to use Google can find something like Audio Hijack that will convert them to MP3s for use on an iPod or whatever.)

It takes a lot to make one of the world's largest jazz festivals anti-climactic.

The inaugural North Sea Jazz Cruise arrived in Rotterdam on July 13, just in time for the 900 passengers who've spent the past eight days being saturated in music and Scandinavian port stops to attend the three- day North Sea Jazz Festival. Most had positive things to say about the festival, except for excessive heat possibly caused by ventilation problems the final day. But speaking personally as a multi-time festival attendee who's seen many of the featured performers up close for more than a week aboard the ship, mingling among 90,000 others trying to jam their way into seats from from the stage didn't have the same appeal.

Also, using Holland America Line's Rotterdam as lodging was a massive blessing that saved hours of travel many festival-goers endure daily, but the atmosphere onboard was very much that of winding down. For some that actually was a blessing, as organizers, crew and musicians sometimes working nearly round- the-clock in the contained setting of a 778-foot ship finally could relax and reflect on what worked and what needs improvement next time.

"This is the first time we've ever done anything like this in conjunction with the festival," said Michael Lazaroff, executive director of Jazz Cruises LLC, at the beginning of the featured concert with McCoy Tyner on Day 8 in the main theater. The company organizes several cruises in the Bahamas each year, but was in new waters with a new approach to the bands for this voyage and "obviously not everything was perfect—"

"It was wonderful," a woman in the audience shouted out, getting a robust round of concurring applause that kept Lazaroff from finishing his apology.

Comments from passengers were nearly all positive about major aspects of the cruise such as the musician lineup and activities, although there were a range of complaints and suggestions about smaller things ranging from imprecise scheduling to poor logistics for shuttle buses to town while in port. For organizers who spent the trip trying to avoid a meltdown—almost literally—from electrical problems on ship that was still repairing flooding damage from an Antarctic storm, the lack of any major problems affecting passengers made the trip an overwhelming success.

"I was on fire and didn't know it," said Gary Baldassari, production manager for Jazz Cruises. He said relatively minor adjustments such as more staff and backup gear will help future such cruises go smoother, even if the basic challenge of hosting a larger roster of bands who are frequently progressive in nature and therefore have more complex demands than most of the company's trips remains.

"There's always music at sea, but nothing like the intensity of what we played here," he said.

Muddying The Waters

"Amsterdam to party, The Hague to live, Rotterdam to work," is a common saying in The Netherlands, but the North Sea Jazz Festival is part of an urban renewal effort somewhat at odds with Rotterdam's pride in its productivity.

Residents tend to scoff at Amsterdam's play-loose-and-hard mentality (and if the feeling by the partiers about a city of workaholics isn't mutual I'll eat my iPod), but they're clearly happy accepting the money the festival has generated since moving here from The Hague in 2006. One surprise was learning the cruisers aren't necessarily a welcome part of the influx.

"This is the third goddam trip to the terminal," said Ron, a Rotterdam taxi driver for more than 20 years, when I climbed into his car after Day 1 of the festival. "It's unreal."

Ron, whose last name I'm omitting to keep him out of trouble, launched into his tirade after my seemingly innocent inquiry of "how's business?" He said fares to the terminal are about "10 ($14), compared to "65- "85 ($90-$120) for The Hague and "140-185 ($195-$260) for Amsterdam. Staggering as those fares are, there's invariably a huge line at the taxi stand coming out of the festival, even if most of the plebes rely on much cheaper tram/train combinations that typically take two- to three-hours. (Mercifully, daytime fares to the Amsterdam airport booked with the cruise line are "only" $100).

Ron says he's a fan of jazz—something with Miller and David Sanborn was playing on the radio—"but if you are a cab driver you don't have time for anything" related to the festival. Shifts are typically 12 hours, although he said volume doesn't increase during festival weekend since weekdays are when locals keep drivers busiest. He said he understands why cruise passengers are all too glad avoiding marathon commutes, but drivers are the ones stuck repeatedly in the slow-moving parking lot queues to pick up emerging festival-goers and the increased likelihood of a "bum" fare.

"I will drop you off and I will go back and hope the next ride that I get goes out of town," he said.

Plenty of people made day trips out of town before the festival opened its doors each evening, since more culturally interesting diversions from Anne Frank's hideout to hash houses are an hour away in Amsterdam (getting there by train is cheap, easy and comfortable—unless it's after midnight and several thousand people are trying to catch a scaled-back number of runs). But Rotterdam has enough charms, most notably its post-war architecture, for a long weekend (alas, my masochistic desire to visit the Tax Museum went fulfilled).

Rotterdam's name roughly translates as "muddy water dam," with a large collection of dikes protecting a city below sea level in many areas. It is the largest port in Europe and has one of its most acclaimed university business school programs. Like many cities in the region, a significant portion was leveled during World War II (in 1940 at the hands of the Germans in this case, leading to the surrender of the Dutch). The Wikipedia entry on the reconstruction notes "from the 1950s through the 1970s, the city was rebuilt. It remained quite windy and open until the city councils from the 1980s on began developing an active architectural policy. Daring and new styles of apartments, office buildings and recreation facilities resulted in a more 'livable' city center with a new skyline."

One of my favorite statistics has to do with having the Netherlands' highest percentage of non-industrialized foreigners: more than 50,000 of its 590,000 residents are Surinamese, coming from a tiny country along the northern coast of South America that is unmentioned in virtually every travel guide in print (I was there as part of my quest to seek jazz in the world's truly unusual places—look a report on it and two equally obscure neighbors that comprise a trio known as the Guianas in the near future).

The North Sea festival relocated here in 2006 after 30 years in The Hague because a large portion of the Congress Centre they used was torn down to make room for a new Europol criminal intelligence agency facility. While I'll give the Ahoy center in Rotterdam a slight overall preference for handling large crowds, I miss the small lounge-like rooms the relatively obscure acts I prefer performed at in The Hague; they're in larger, less comfortable outside tents in Rotterdam. Also, the apparent ventilation problems on the final day left sweaty impressions for many returning home, not to mention what a few strangers in adjacent seats on trans-Atlantic flights probably thought.

Most of the ship was vacant by the time the doors opened at 5 p.m. on Day 1. However, I notice I've started approaching North Sea like a Vegas heavyweight fight over the years—skipping the early undercards and showing up for the main event(s)—starting at 9 p.m. on Day 1—with the main difference being I focus mostly on the "unknowns" upon arriving.

The two "names" dominating my interest on Day 1, and for the entire festival for that matter, were two trumpeter masters at opposite ends of what I'll call modern minimalism: Poland's Tomasz Stanko (think old- school Miles with a cool accent) and Norway's Nils Petter Molvaer (one of maybe three people on Earth I consider a true artist with a sampler and beat box). Beyond that, I planned to spend most of the night in the tent featuring Eastern European bands I'd never heard of, just to hear what emerged.

Stanko and Moelvaer both delivered what I wanted to hear, but neither was so distinct from what I have on about a zillion albums and videos that it dragged my attention from composing these posts on my laptop for long stretches. That said, I have scattered notes about the wizardry of each that read more like fan mail than serious critiques and, since I'm focusing on the cruise, are best skipped. Worse, I basically shirked my duties in the Euro tent altogether, typing away while keeping the music blissfully in the background. It's a lot like jazz in Norway—it's all good.

My favorite encounter of the weekend was a "busker" doing a one-man band thing outside the entrance leading to the parking lot. Jeff Silvertrust was playing typical showman schmaltz (i.e. "100 Ways To Get Bin Laden"), but riffling through several CDs and a DVD near his hat made it clear he's not living meal-to-meal on spare change. Also, as you may have guessed, North Sea doesn't let just anyone play in front—they issue invitations and make arrangements well in advance like any of the bands inside. (One of my favorites from a couple years ago, saxophonist Matt Cashdollar, then part of a group of friends in a new band they called The Madcap Four, now has a mass of free MP3s from various projects at www.mattcashdollar.com/music.html.)

Born in Chicago and now living in Belgium as the latest stop in a lengthy career alternating between the U.S. and Europe, sidemen on his albums include Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers, Sonny Fortune, Marc Copland, Avery Sharpe and many others. He's got free one-man band videos at his Web site, which also sells two of his many albums (I recommend 2002's Hip Knossis with many of the players just mentioned over One-Man Band) . In addition, using Google I found three YouTube videos of his one-man stuff where he does things like mix "Cantaloupe Island" with "Gilligan's island."

He's been making a living doing the one-man stint since 1980, playing piano with his left hand, trumpet with his right and percussion with his feet, plus other sounds interspaced where appropriate. But his music influences include legends like Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins and Sun Ra, and currently leads a German quartet when not doing everything himself.

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